Leaders know that breakdowns can lead to breakthroughs. Honest, fact-based analysis of what’s missing and what’s needed to overcome obstacles frees individuals and teams to reconnect to the commitments they’ve made. But, to fully unleash their ambition, and fully live in the potential future they want to create, leaders must not only manage breakdowns but actively search for them to accelerate progress. This is neither comfortable nor easy. Plus, to be effective, leaders must avoid becoming commentators focused only on finding problems, or players rushing in to solve them. By getting curious, always asking ‘how might we?’ and acting as a fully committed coach they can create energy and breakthrough thinking that will deliver their vision faster.
Let’s face it, no one likes breakdowns or obstacles on the way to our desired destination. But they are a vital part of the journey, and leaders need to overcome their natural resistance and actively seek breakdowns to build momentum. We learn more through setbacks and find more innovative solutions when presented with obstacles. Step one is a willingness to be uncomfortable. As we’ve argued before, leaders need to step outside the psychological safety they create for their teams. You’ve just enrolled your team into your publicly and boldly declared vision. Everyone is enthusiastic and raring to go. The temptation is to let things roll: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But this comfort can quickly slide into the ‘Wilful Blindness’ described by Margaret Heffernan among others; turning a blind eye to potential issues for the sake of an easy ride. It might feel good and be popular in the short term but it ultimately constricts your true ambition.
Be Comfortable with Discomfort
Instead, great leaders become comfortable with being uncomfortable. They are scanning the horizon for potential breakdowns even as things are going well. And when they spot them, they don’t run away but towards them. Embracing setbacks not only find solutions faster but uncovers hidden commitments that can slow and derail progress further down the line. The breakdowns leaders must actively search out include not only the tangible, objective obstacles to progress but the subtle, cultural, and behavioural. As ever, careful attention to the inner voices of individuals and the undeclared, unrealised background objectives that can disrupt is even more important than the ability to spot external future scenarios.
How Might We?
But how can you do this without becoming an ‘energy vampire’ sucking motivation from the team? The key is commitment. Leaders don’t point out challenges as ‘commentators’ looking for someone or something to blame. Nor do they focus on the negative – what can’t be done. They use honest, open, and inclusive questioning about potential solutions to potential breakdowns and encourage others to be honest with their concerns. One of the most powerful questions for a leader to ask is ‘How might we...?’ This high-possibility approach encourages everyone to engage with facts not assumptions and unearths potential solutions and creativity in looking for answers.
This honest and authentic curiosity is key to avoiding the other trap for leaders seeking to accelerate breakthroughs through breakdowns. Spotting potential issues only to be the one to ride to the rescue only creates busy-work that will sap your own energy and that of the team. Unless your ambition is to be constantly firefighting and problem solving then this approach will only hold you back.
Leaders need to act as the committed coaches to their teams. Coaches look for opportunities to maximise the potential of their players, seeking situations that allow them to take on challenges, fall, get back up, learn and grow. A good sports coach will find matches and events that will stretch their team, whilst giving them support, confidence and guidance to succeed. Business leaders must do the same, actively seeking opportunities to accelerate the development of individuals committed to a common goal. Playing the top team who are unbeaten in the season is not a problem to be managed, but an opportunity to find a way of playing that can win against them. A breakdown en route to your potential future is the same, not simply something to be quickly overcome to move on, but an opportunity to test, learn and create new solutions.
It may seem counter-intuitive, especially to leaders used to being the ones with the answers. But to fully unleash ambition it is imperative to put aside winning ways. The old answers and rehashing what has worked before is unlikely to deliver the results needed. Only by actively embracing breakdowns can leaders discover what they and their teams are capable of and catalyse real innovation. It is a hard route to take – human nature favours the avoidance of setbacks – but boldly, bravely and proactively spotting and tackling challenges will accelerate progress and deliver breakthrough results. Ultimately, that’s what leadership demands.
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